Why We Must Attract More Students from Overseas

Tony Blair, Guardian (London), April 18, 2006

The UK is a world leader in the recruitment of international students, second only to the United States. High quality, value for money and internationally recognised qualifications are just a few reasons for us to be proud of our UK universities.

I also know that students coming to the UK value the choice offered by our universities and the vocational excellence of our further education colleges. Together with the diversity of student life in the UK, it is a winning combination.

This is good news for our universities, our colleges, and the UK as a whole, which benefit both culturally and economically from attracting the brightest people from around the world. In fact, international students contribute over £5bn each year to our economy. Just as importantly, friendships and links are forged, and relations are strengthened between our peoples and countries at many different levels. Many of the foreign leaders and ministers I meet are graduates of our universities.

This all explains why, back in 1999, I personally set a target of an additional 75,000 international students at our universities and colleges by 2005. Thanks to hard work by the government, the British Council and our HE and FE institutions, I am pleased to say we have not only reached this target but beaten it by an extra 43,000 students. Now I want us to go further.

Today I am setting a more ambitious target of attracting 100,000 more international students to the UK by 2011. This is vital to maintaining the thriving, cosmopolitan base of students we have, and will also deepen our global education links.

Our universities and colleges have worked hard to sell the opportunities and benefits of studying in the UK, but we can’t be complacent. Other countries are also encouraging more foreign students to study with them. Australia and New Zealand, for example, have grown particularly strongly, and countries such as China, Malaysia and Singapore, which traditionally send many students to our shores, now have burgeoning higher education sectors of their own.

We are determined to stay ahead of our competitors. So today I am announcing that we are committing almost £7m so universities and colleges can continue attracting students from abroad. It’s extra funding to help improve the experience of international students at British institutions and also, importantly, to build closer partnerships with their colleagues overseas.

Today also sees the launch of the UK-India Education and Research Initiative, which I announced when I was in Delhi last September. No one who visits India can fail to be impressed by the huge advances its economy and education system are making, and I returned determined that we needed radically to improve our links with a country that is producing hundreds of thousands of graduates each year.

It lays the ground not only for us to become each other’s partner of choice in education, but also for us to collaborate on world-class research, which will be backed by proper investment from government and industry. BP, GlaxoSmithKline, BAE Systems and Shell have already agreed to champion the initiative, and I am delighted that India’s Tata Group will also participate.

Over the next five years, the initiative will support 70 new research projects that link centres of excellence in the sciences and social science from India and the UK. And it will launch 40 new UK award programmes for Indian students, which will be offered in partnership with Indian institutions.

Backed by £12m of government money, and nearly £5m in cash or in kind from private sector partners, the initiative will allow split PhDs and research fellowships, and increased academic exchanges.

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